LONDON. — Of the absent legends from Tottenham Hotspur’s emotional goodbye to White Hart Lane on Sunday, none brought as much joy to the old stadium as Jimmy Greaves.
No one scored more goals at the Lane than Greaves’ 176 but the 77-year-old, who suffered a stroke in 2015, was not well enough to attend Sunday’s match against Manchester United, followed by the rain-soaked parade of 48 club legends.
In a testament to Greaves’ enduring legacy, around about the same time a rainbow appeared above the stadium in North London, another great goal scorer was equalling a 46-year-old record belonging to the former England striker.
Cristiano Ronaldo’s two goals in Real Madrid’s 4-1 win against Sevilla on Sunday took him level with Greaves on 366 goals in Europe’s five elite leagues.
Just three days later, another two goals from the reigning holder of the Ballon d’Or, in another 4-1 win for his team at Celta Vigo, saw him claim the record as his own outright.
Greaves’ record spanned a 14-year career at Chelsea, AC Milan, Spurs and West Ham United but 220 of his league goals came for Tottenham and, for supporters of a certain age, he remains synonymous with White Hart Lane.
Two of the loudest cheers on Sunday came for Gary Mabbutt and Ledley King, centre-backs who captained Spurs to silverware, but skill and goals have always been the most valued commodities at White Hart Lane and Greaves had both in abundance.
“He is a lot more skilful than people give him credit for,” 1960-61 Double-winning manager Bill Nicholson once said of his centre-forward.
Greaves’ goal scoring was never in doubt and his statistics, not least the record Ronaldo now owns, are still relevant today — particularly now Spurs have ended an era. His 266 goals in all competitions for Tottenham is a club record, while he is Chelsea’s seventh top-scorer with 132, despite spending just four seasons at Stamford Bridge.
He finished as First Division top scorer in England on a record six occasions and he was his club’s top scorer in 12 of the 14 seasons he played in the top flight. His 44 England goals came from 57 caps, and even an unhappy spell at AC Milan yielded nine goals in 14 appearances.
His finishing was dead-eye and composed — as Nicholson once put it: “He didn’t try to blast the back of the net out. He seemed to place the ball just inside the post as if he was making a pass to the stanchion in the back of the net.”
Greaves himself said: “A lot of players today make the mistake of feeling they have to blast it. They haven’t. You pick your spot.”
His two goals in Tottenham’s 5-1 win over Atletico Madrid in 1963 European Cup Winners’ Cup final were the perfect examples of his art. Both were half-volleys at the back post, passed into the net.
Greaves was also blessed with tremendous pace and poise. Perhaps his best goal at White Hart Lane came in 1965 against a Manchester United side boasting George Best, Bobby Charlton and Denis Law. Collecting a pass midway inside United’s half, Greaves turned an opponent and charged. In what seemed to be one swift movement, his acceleration took him away from three United defenders and left goalkeeper Pat Dunne sprawling in the dirt, allowing Greaves to tap in to an empty net. His dribbling was so fluid, he barely seems to the touch the ground.
“Scoring goals came naturally to me. I never felt tension, nerves, any sort of pressure. It was something I had been born to do,” he said.
He continued to score goals for Tottenham even after a serious bout of hepatitis in 1965 robbed him, by his own admission, of a yard of pace for the rest of his career. In 1969, the year before he was to leave the Lane, he scored another remarkable solo goal, running from the halfway line, untouchable and unflustered, to finish from close range against Newcastle. His ability was matched only by his modesty. “If I had scored every goal I’d missed, and missed every goal I’d scored, I wouldn’t half be in the record books,” he once said.
Greaves’ journey began at White Hart Lane as a 17-year-old with a goal for Chelsea on his debut and he had wanted his career to end there too. He joined Spurs from AC Milan in December 1961, just after their historic league and FA Cup Double, and left acrimoniously in 1970, when Nicholson arranged a swap deal with West Ham’s Martin Peters.
“It left a very bad taste,” Greaves later said. “It could have been done better, I didn’t want to go. I still had a lot to offer Tottenham, I had nothing to offer West Ham. My heart was still at White Hart Lane.”
More than anyone else, Greaves deserved the adulation of the crowd one last time on Sunday, particularly because he barely set foot in the stadium after leaving Tottenham. It is fitting that proceeds from the ground’s finale will go to The Tottenham Tribute Trust, the organisation which has given Greaves so much help since he suffered a major stroke in May 2015.
He was, at least, able to say goodbye to the stadium last month. He paid an emotional visit the Lane for the first time since his induction to Tottenham’s Hall of Fame in 2015, spending four hours there with his family.
“I’d love to have a kick-about,” he said.
Over in Spain, Ronaldo is becoming more and more like Greaves.
The Portugal captain is 32, already a year older than Greaves when he retired, and he conserves his energy now, coming alive in the box and saving his sprints for when there is the clearest route to goal.
He broke Greaves’ European goal record with a brace at Celta Vigo on Wednesday night.
By that point, the demolition of White Hart Lane was already well underway.
Greaves’ records there will last forever. — ESPN.